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Tadeusz Kosciuszko and The Un-Soviet Heroes of Belarus

On 9 October 2017, the Belarusian Association in Switzerland brought to the attention of the media the controversy over Tadeusz Kosciuszko monument in the Swiss town of Solothurn. Belarusian diaspora created and funded the monument, dedicating it “to an...

On 9 October 2017, the Belarusian Association in Switzerland brought to the attention of the media the controversy over Tadeusz Kosciuszko monument in the Swiss town of Solothurn. Belarusian diaspora created and funded the monument, dedicating it “to an outstanding son of Belarus.” This wording led to a conflict with the Polish embassy, which ignored all offers to partake in the project.

Apparently, Polish ambassador in Bern Jakub Kumoch asked Swiss authorities to remove all mentions referring to Belarus. Belarusian diaspora in Switzerland did not agree and went public with this story, sparking a discussion of Kosciuszko’s legacy, both internationally and within Belarus.

Belarus, along with Poland and Lithuania, remains the rightful heir to the symbolic legacy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Yet, in contrast to its neighbours, it remained reluctant to appropriate its heroes, choosing to build the national narrative on the Soviet era material.

From Belarus to Switzerland

Tadeusz Kosciuszko was born in Mieračoŭščyna – a manor in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the time, currently located in the Brest region of today’s Belarus.

Following revolutionary ideals, Kosciuszko volunteered to join the American Revolutionary War in 1776. A talented military engineer, he commanded the construction of fortifications, including the fort at West Point. In recognition of his achievements, the Continental Congress made him American general. Yet in 1784, Kosciuszko followed the call of his heart and returned to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where he commanded the anti-Russian uprising of 1794 against the partition of his homeland.

After the defeat of the uprising, the Commonwealth seized to exist and Kosciuszko spent two years in Russian prison. After being pardoned, he moved back to the US and later to the Swiss town of Solothurn, where he spent the last years of his life. A prominent human rights proponent and a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, who called him the “purest son of Liberty,” Kosciuszko left his fortune to free and educate American slaves.

Belarusian patriots vs. Polish diplomats

Aliaksandar Sapieha and Kosciuszko’s monument in Solothurn. Photo: Aliaksandar Sapieha

In 2016, Belarusian Association in Switzerland initiated a crowdfunding campaign to create a monument to Tadeusz Kosciuszko in Solothurn, timing the unveiling ceremony to his 200th death anniversary. At the very start of the project, the Association offered Polish embassy to participate, yet did not receive any answer.

Independently raising a sum of over 7.000, Belarusian diaspora decided to write a dedication “to an outstanding son of Belarus from grateful compatriots” in German and in Belarusian.

According to the deputy chairman of the Belarusian Association in Switzerland Aliaksandar Sapieha, Polish ambassador Jakub Kumoch contacted the mayor of Solothurn, demanding to remove the inscription in Belarusian. Apparently, fearing international scandal, the mayor gave in after the threat that Poland’s official delegation might ignore the town’s commemorative events.

Later, the Polish Foreign Ministry explained that Kosciuszko’s contributions to the history of humanity could not be limited to being just “a son of Belarus.” However, this position did not prevent Poland from marketing Kosciuszko as “son of Poland” in the past, even though the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by no means was a modern nation-state with a clear national identity as we understand it now.

After the media ran the story, Belarusian MFA interfered into the conflict, bringing in a more balanced position. Temporary charge d’affaires of the Belarusian embassy Pavel Matsukevich mediated a compromise with the municipality. In the final version, the wording included Kosciuszko’s name, dates of birth and death and the dedication “From the Belarusian Association in Switzerland.” Belarusian embassy also found a donor, who partly compensated the monument costs.

On 20 October, in an interview to Radio Svaboda, Polish ambassador explained his position, refuting all accusations and shifting the blame to the municipality of Solothurn. Two days later, Kumoch spoke of Kosciuszko as “a national hero belonging not only to Poland but also to the US and Lithuania, whose legacy is lately also being appreciated in Belarus.” In a conciliatory tone, his address on the occasion of Kosciuszko ‘s monument unveiling in Solothurn was in Belarusian.

Meanwhile in Kosciuszko’s homeland

Looking at the actual Kosciuszko’s commemoration in Belarus, Kumoch might have simply stated the unpleasant truth for the Belarusians. Up until now, there are only two busts (not monuments) of Kosciuszko in Belarus, one of which is on the territory of the American embassy in Minsk. A modest museum at his birthplace in Mieračoŭščyna remains off the beaten track.

Kosciuszko’s museum in Mieračoŭščyna. Photo: Lizaveta Kasmach

The Swiss story prompted Belarusians to acknowledge these facts at last. On 11 October, Belarusian journalist Hleb Labadzenka started a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the first Kosciuszko’s monument in his homeland. Responses to the campaign were positive, collecting almost 6.000 within a short span of time.

During Lukashenka’s rule, Belarus has been glorifying Soviet-era heroes, ignoring other prominent figures of its history. For instance, Kosciuszko’s contemporary, composer and a participant of 1794 uprising, Michal Kleafas Ahinski remained another forgotten hero. His palace in Zalesse, Smarhon region, where the composer spent 20 years of his life, reminded a haunted place for a long time.

In 2001, the only monument to Ahinski was installed in Maladzečna with funds collected among the city population. The restored palace opened as a museum only in 2014. Almost all funding came from the European Union’s cross-border cooperation programme Latvia-Lithuania-Belarus.

Is Belarusian political regime willing to embrace new national heroes?

Recently, one of the major Belarusian state TV channels, Belarus 1, showed a story about the Military Academy at West Point and Kosciuszko’s contributions to its history. The official media clearly stated his Belarusian roots – this did not happen often before.

As the position of the Belarusian MFA regarding the incident in Switzerland demonstrated, Belarusian regime does not mind to play around with national mythology, especially in light of recent flexible approaches to strengthen the independence. From a different point of view, Belarus could profit from the tourist potential of its non-Soviet history and revive rural regions.

Finally, Kosciuszko monument in Switzerland might have also reminded Belarusians not to leave history up for grabs. Historical legacies and heroic narratives are the foundations of every nation, and Belarus has a right to use them in the same manner as its neighbours do.

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Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach holds a PhD in History from the University of Alberta, Canada.
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